Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came to theaters last fall, it received some of its praise for restoring a measure of darkness to a very dark story, one that had at some point been co-opted by the bright colors and felted textures of a Sunday school flannelboard. Aronofsky’s film depicts an earth plagued in its cosmic infancy by men who tear at raw meat with their teeth and trade women for food. The protagonist is responsible for a God-appointed task that was transmitted on mute, leaving him to piece together his mission from a string of visual clues. That missing audio results in his nearly stabbing his newborn grandkids through their fontanels with an iron dagger. After the Ark’s landfall, we find him naked and drunk out of his mind in a cave. Surely goodness and mercy have followed that one.
The darkness in Aronofsky’s film is real, of course, but that’s not what I’m after. Rather, I mean to argue that when it comes to the Noah story in our cultural imagination, this darkness is not new. In fact, Aronofsky would do well to acknowledge his creative predecessors. If they hadn’t gone on a bleak voyage of their own two decades earlier, Aronofsky wouldn’t have known not to plunge us into total darkness.
The people who gave Aronofsky his Noah dimmer switch are the folks at the Christian video game company Wisdom Tree, who sacrificed their eponymous tree in the early 1990s to build an ark in a Satanic nightmare-world teeming with blood-crazed animals. It has now been twenty years since Wisdom Tree released Super 3D Noah’s Ark, and we still have not had our reckoning with its subversive and singular vision.
Super 3D Noah’s Ark places Noah below decks, arms him with a slingshot and mana-stuffed bandolier, and sends him on a mission to “put all the animals to sleep” by shooting food at them. Pixellated goats rush at Noah, blinking from side to side like malfunctioning holograms, and kick him in the face. Sorry, they kick you in the face. Super 3D Noah’s Ark is a first-person shooter. You are Noah. You are the one the goats want to kick to death. There is no one else around.
By divine fiat, every environment in Super 3D Noah’s Ark is a broad room with a low ceiling. The walls are stacked logs; the windows are all blown out; the only decorations otherwise are rigid chandeliers and giant portraits of you, Noah. Fruit hovers above the ground for you to collect, but doing so offers you no discernible benefit. Larger animals—ostriches and camels, mainly—spit at you from a distance in staccato bursts like machine guns stricken with mange. They also have the power to open doors, which is terrifying.
If the game feels familiar, that’s because it’s built off the source code for one of the most famous first-person shooters of the era: Wolfenstein 3D. The walls of the ark have been stripped of swastikas; the Wehrmacht and SS troops have had their MP-40s beaten into ploughshares, their gruff visages beaten into snouts. The only real changes that Wisdom Tree made to Wolfenstein are cosmetic ones.
This is where Super 3D Noah’s Ark takes a dizzying turn. Just about the clearest act of virtue possible in the quaint world of first-person shooters is that of killing Nazis. Morally, it sure beats killing just about anything else, and since killing is hard-coded into everything that lives and moves in the FPS universe, players are hard pressed to find their salvation otherwise.
Super 3D Noah’s Ark looks and behaves identically to Wolfenstein 3D, but instead of invading Nazi Germany, you’re invading the ark; and instead of killing Nazis, you’re, well, putting animals “to sleep.” This is to say, Wisdom Tree dispenses with the form of the good as it relates to the FPS genre, and instead assigns the player the morally ambiguous task of putting down animals being held in captivity.
What can this be but a clue to the truth of Super 3D Noah’s Ark? Wisdom Tree couldn’t have quit its concept there and released the game into the market. Something else must be going on if Noah is to be saved—if we are to be saved.
Suppose Super 3D Noah’s Ark is some sort of Sunday-school satire. It lampoons the flannelboard Noah by instantiating him, arming him, and sending him grinning with holy fear on a rampage around his own boat, which has grown to an enormous size and is inescapably labyrinthine. The only lesson for children here is one about the surprising reproductive capacities of certain mammals.
Consider too Super 3D Noah’s Ark as an existentialist’s parable. At grips with his Western cultural and intellectual inheritance, full and fraught as it is with Christianity, an inter-dimensional Camus pens a short reflection on Noah rather than Sisyphus. He locks poor Noah in a floating fortress, maze-like and dimly lit, and then causes the animals in his care to turn on him. God is silent but for the cryptic instructions he scrawls on the wall of Noah’s room. His family is nowhere to be found. The rest of humanity rots in the water he’ll never see that surrounds the boat he’ll never leave. Forty years later, Wisdom Tree redeems the rights to the story, and Super 3D Noah’s Ark is born.
Perhaps Super 3D Noah’s Ark is an analogy for the Christian music industry. Wisdom Tree was already tired of the derivative music broadcast over uplifting and inspirational airwaves back then, and decided to capture CCM’s essential emptiness by parodying the industry’s M.O. They took a successful product, emptied it of objectionable content, and dressed it up in the garb of a story from Scripture. Mix in ostriches that can open doors, a semi-automatic slingshot, and the most annoying rubber band sound effect you’ve ever heard. Add strafing. Head to the bank.
Maybe Super 3D Noah’s Ark is an imaginative indictment for our failure to care for God’s creation. On this ark, even the ones we mean to save end up on the wrong end of an edible missile. Who knows what species could have populated those digital lands had Noah not sent so many of them to the big farm up in the sky before the laden dove came back to him.
But it seems to me that beneath all this interpretative fat and skin is the true heart of Super 3D Noah’s Ark, and it turns out that it’s not a bitter or ironic or satirical one at all. At the heart of the game is one of the most important theological questions of our day, which addresses the problem of a war-weary century’s worth of philosophy and critical theory: is there a way to recover a conception of language that frees it from essential violence, coercion, and dissembling?
This is the meaning of Super 3D Noah’s Ark, philosophical and theological drama par excellence.
Consider the ark as speech itself, as philosopher-theologian Jean-Louis Chrétien does. After receiving the gift of language, Noah—humanity—gathers the innocent non-human inhabitants of the world, and in so doing echoes the first act of the first human, who gave them their names without desiring food or clothing from them.
But then, closed within the ark, the animals grow restless. Noah thought he was going to have an easy cruise, but 34 days after starting to float the goats have reproduced in such massive numbers that they’ve somehow taken over the boat, and are fomenting mutiny. Here the satirical edge of earlier Noah interpretations comes back into play, but Wisdom Tree takes a meta tack: the darkness is real. Humanity is covered in sin, sees through a glass darkly, puts the very form of language in the service of domination. Noah is tempted to deal with his goats as he would deal with Nazis. If all you’ve got is a warhammer, what does every problem look like?
But there’s a more hopeful side to the goat situation, too. Things in this world are wily and nimble in resisting our powers of conception and articulation. When we try to refine our words to better fit the world, it opens up new sides for us, and we’re thrown. This isn’t just about an inability to order things for maximum utility or control. It’s an inability to get a handle on the being of things as they stand apart from us.
Noah’s getting kicked in the face by an 8-bit goat is any one of us reeling at a poem, a word of Scripture, a chunk of text that allows the world to show itself in all its independent splendor through a fresh or unexpected ordering of words. It’s a stone being rolled away to reveal a blinding light. It’s the experience of co-creation; it’s wrestling with the angel. It’s something you can’t quite put to words.
Earlier insinuations aside, when Noah scores hits with his food launcher, his targets do not die across the Ark’s floor. They fall asleep, and will presumably remain asleep until the boat scrapes ashore. They live on, and they’re safe. The ark will carry them to their destination unharmed.
Super 3D Noah’s Ark attempts to give us a schematic for a Christian vocation in words. Above the destruction brought on by the violent and deceitful, language animated with grace from elsewhere can convey its contents safely and without coercion. The violence inside and outside the ark sets the stakes high and forces Noah to undergo a dark night of the soul, but the implied hope throughout is for a landfall that will bring a final peace.
This is the hope of Chrétien and David Bentley Hart, who uncover the dimensions of hospitality and peace in language and Christian discourse in their books. It’s also my hope, modern doubter that I am about whether the Word comes to bring peace or a sword.
And ultimately, it’s the hope of Wisdom Tree, whose unendorsed SNES title Super 3D Noah’s Ark is a theological treatise in the guise of a Nazi-killing shoot-em-up in the guise of a colorful and non-violent children’s game, the different layers acting as safeguards for the deposit entrusted to the developers. Whereas Aronofsky dips Noah into an unsettling darkness, Wisdom Tree plunges Super 3D Noah’s Ark into a darkness so deep that we find God there.